- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

It’s a bit surprising that “I Capture the Castle” has eluded movie adaptation for more than half a century. “Castle” is the “other” famous book by Dodie Smith, the late English playwright-screenwriter-novelist who enriched the Disney inventory with “101 Dalmatians.”

Reputedly the author’s favorite and a bittersweet staple with two generations of readers attracted to coming-of-age stories, “Castle” was optioned by Disney for Hayley Mills about 40 years ago, and there must have been numerous young actresses who seemed ideal — for fleeting periods — as the lovelorn narrator and protagonist: 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, who describes how good fortune simultaneously benefits and torments her impoverished bohemian family.

This sincere and intriguing, although never decisively persuasive realization, was adapted by Heidi Thomas and directed by Tim Fywell, who collaborated previously on a new TV version of “Madame Bovary” and might not have recovered completely from its moods of desperation. As Cassie, Romola Garai always seems rather prematurely fretful and defeatist. The plot, which supposedly unfolds from Cassie’s diary entries, depends on several young people suffering pangs of unrequited love — and on hidden agendas that Cassie cannot anticipate.

A certain suspense element hinges on Cassie’s ability to seem like a plausible romantic rival to her older sister, Rose (Rose Byrne), revealed to be an opportunistic cutthroat when wealthy suitors appear. Miss Garai’s hold on pathos is far less secure than Miss Byrne’s portrait of unscrupulous seductive charm, so it always looks a little preposterous for Cassie to get in the way of Rose’s machinations — and even more preposterous to reject a devoted suitor of her own, an orphan named Stephen who has become a kind of surrogate brother. Stephen is so handsomely embodied by Henry Cavill that Cassie also looks rather daft to insist on carrying a torch for someone unavailable. Among other things, it appears that Stephen, soon “discovered” by an older woman who belongs to artistic circles, might become a movie discovery, as well.

The novel was published in 1948, but the filmmakers settle on 1936, where we find the Mortmain sisters and their blessedly easygoing kid brother, Thomas (Joe Sowerbutts, a heck of a name), involved in a picturesque family struggle to make ends meet. Years earlier, when their father (Bill Nighy) was coasting on the fabulous success of his first novel, it suited his caprice to rent a castle in Suffolk as a residence. The romance of it all seemed to compensate for the lack of amenities.

Now they’re stuck. The royalties from the novel have dwindled to an annual pittance. The family hasn’t paid rent for a couple of years, trusting on the good will of their landlord. The children’s mother is dead and has been replaced by an artist’s model named Topaze (Tara Fitzgerald), a free spirit of the Roaring ‘20s whose age is closer to the girls’ than the father’s. Mr. Mortmain has been luckier than he deserves with this sensuous second wife: She remains loyal despite his inability to earn a fresh cent.

The prospect of eviction looms when the old landlord dies and the estate is purchased by wealthy Americans: the widowed Mrs. Cotton (Sinead Cusack) and her grown sons, Simon (Henry Thomas) and Neil (Marc Blucas). When the new owners meet their unfortunate but cultured tenants, the forecast brightens: Both Mrs. Cotton and Simon are enchanted with Rose.

For her part, Rose isn’t about to let the opportunity slip away. Cassie, smitten with Simon, is obliged to eat her young heart out even as Simon betrays a growing fondness for her. Meanwhile, Stephen’s unavailing attempts to win Cassie’s devotion force him to seek consolation in what would appear to be much greener pastures. It pains Cassie to discover several things, including the extent of Rose’s romantic ruthlessness, but you’re not convinced that Cassie is entirely scrupulous — especially when it seems to entail becoming the sort of Daddy’s girl who holds a whip hand over Daddy.

The spectacle of co-dependence in the Mortmain household is not a pretty picture. Perhaps young Thomas will make a fortune one day and cure all the lingering heartaches. The movie’s emotional attachment to the self-pity shared by Cassie and Mr. Mortmain tends to enhance a perverse preference for the more vigorous, selfish, uncomplicated figures, notably Rose and Neil. A former member of the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” cast, Marc Blucas gives Neil a youthful vitality that is irresistible. He’s also a ringer for Jeff Bridges about 30 years ago.

The claims of true-hearted sensibility, Cassie’s strong point, never seem to be in the same league with the self-interested practicality and sexual magnetism that are Rose’s insurmountable advantages. It might even be easier to share a broken heart with an actress as winsome as Rose Byrne. I’m not sure if it’s more an age thing or a temperament thing, but there’s something about renunciation that doesn’t flatter the heroine of “I Capture the Castle.”

**

TITLE: “I Capture the Castle”

RATING: R (Sustained sexual candor, with occasional nudity and simulated intercourse; episodes of intense family conflict)

CREDITS: Directed by Tim Fywell. Screenplay by Heidi Thomas, based on the novel by Dodie Smith.

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutesMAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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